06/15/2015 02:55 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Wynne defends slow progress in Ring of Fire; no 'shovels in the ground' yet

THUNDER BAY, Ont. - Kathleen Wynne says there may be no "shovels in the ground" yet in the Ring of Fire, but the Ontario premier is defending the slow progress in developing the chromite-rich region by saying it takes time to get it right.

The province has earmarked $1 billion for infrastructure in the northern Ontario mining area that holds one of the world's richest deposits of chromite — used to make stainless steel — as well as nickel, copper and platinum, valued at anywhere from $30 billion to $60 billion.

"That billion dollars is real and it's going to go to building infrastructure," she said Monday.

Wynne acknowledged that she said a year ago she won't consider her government to have been successful unless progress has been made in the Ring of Fire, but she said some progress has already been made.

"Are the shovels in the ground yet?" she said. "No, but there's training happening among First Nations. There's work that's been done in terms of agreement among the First Nations on how we would do resource revenue sharing. That hasn't all been finalized but we're a lot farther along than we were a year ago."

Michael Gravelle, the minister of northern development and mines, said a framework agreement with First Nations in the region is an important step.

"In order to reach the full potential of the Ring of Fire there is no question it is not just about building a transportation corridor to a mine site," he said. "It is about opening up access to the communities in the north."

The Ontario government continues to press the federal government to match its planned $1-billion investment, Gravelle said.

Noront Resources (TSXV:NOT) is making the Ring of Fire a priority, he said. The company signed a US$20-million deal to buy claims that were owned indirectly by Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., which said in late 2013 that it had suspended investment plans for the Ring of Fire area.

The Ontario NDP said the Liberal government's most recent budget suggests Ring of Fire infrastructure spending won't begin until 2018-19, which is after the next provincial election.

"As usual the Liberals are more interested in ribbon cuttings and announcements than in actually delivering for the North," said Michael Mantha, the party's critic for northern development and mines. "Nothing has changed under Kathleen Wynne. We believe we should be creating jobs by investing in Ring of Fire infrastructure and promoting revenue-sharing with First Nations."

— By Allison Jones in Toronto